The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Mark Twain's publication in 1876 of his popular novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer reversed a brief downturn in his success following the publication of his previous novel, The Gilded Age. Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer while he and his family were living in Hartford, Connecticut, and while Twain was enjoying his fame. The novel, which tells of the escapades of a young boy and his friends in St. Petersburg, Missouri, a village near the Mississippi River, recalls Twain's own childhood in a small Missouri town. The friendship of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is one of the most celebrated in American literature, built on imaginative adventures, shared superstitions, and loyalty that rises above social convention. Twain's American reading audience loved this novel and its young hero, and the novel remains one of the most popular and famous works of American literature. The novel and its characters have achieved folk hero status in the American popular imagination. Scenes such as Tom Sawyer tricking his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence for him, Injun Joe leaping through the window of the courthouse after Tom names him as Dr. Robinson's murderer, and Tom and Becky lost in the cave have become so familiar to American readers that one almost doesn't have to read the book to know about them. But the pleasure of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has kept readers coming back to the novel for over a century.

Beyond the fact that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is fun to read, there is another reason for the novel's contemporary popularity: It introduces the character of Huckleberry Finn, who, with the publication of Twain's 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, would become one of the greatest characters in American literature.

Author Biography

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, more commonly known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain, was born in 1835 in what he later called "the almost invisible village" of Florida, Missouri. When he was a young child, Twain moved with his family about twenty miles away to Hannibal, Missouri, which is situated on the Mississippi River. Hannibal, Twain later said, was a town where "everybody was poor but didn't know it, and everybody was comfortable and did know it." Hannibal became Twain's model for the fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and in Hannibal began Twain's lifelong love for the great Mississippi River. As a boy, Twain played often near the Mississippi, fascinated by the many steamboats traveling up and down the river, and for fun he would build his own small rafts and float upon the river himself. Twain's childhood activities in Hannibal are often compared to those of Tom Sawyer in St. Petersburg, and Twain wrote in his autobiography about how certain characters in the novel had been suggested by persons he had known in Hannibal. In 1847, when Twain was twelve years old, his childhood was cut short when his father died. Young Sam Clemens was forced to leave school and begin working. He became apprenticed to a typesetter for a local newspaper, and began his long association with journalism.

For the next thirty years, Twain worked in the newspaper business, mainly as a writer; traveled extensively, including trips to the West, Europe, and the Middle East; learned how to pilot a river-boat on the Mississippi River and obtained his pilot's license, working for a while as a riverboat captain; served briefly in the Confederate Army during the Civil War; panned for gold; and married Olivia Langdon, the sister of his friend Charles Langdon. Trained as a journalist, Twain wrote about many of his experiences during this period, and his first two books, Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, are fictionalized accounts of his trips to Europe, the Middle East, and the American West. Twain's success with these two books brought him greater fame and put him in demand as a public speaker. He was known as a great storyteller both on and off the page, and when he published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, it buoyed and secured his reputation as a teller of rollicking adventure tales.

Plot Summary

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer depicts the life of an imaginative, troublesome boy in the American West of the 1840s. The novel is intensely dramatic in its construction, taking the form of a series of comic vignettes based on Tom's exploits. These vignettes are linked together by a darker story that grows in importance throughout the novel—Tom's life-threatening entanglement with the murderer Injun Joe.


The novel opens with a stern Aunt Polly searching for her nephew Tom in order to punish him. The reader, also looking for Tom, is introduced to the basic elements of his life—exploits and punishments. Aunt Polly finds Tom, and he and his half-brother Sid are presented to readers as contrasting versions of boyhood. Tom is the prototypical appealing bad boy while Sid is the obnoxious goodie-goodie. The reader is on Tom's side from this point onward.

The story moves through a series of chapter-length vignettes featuring Tom and his richly imaginative life. These include the most famous scene in the novel, and arguably the most famous scene in American literature—whitewashing the fence. Sentenced to re-paint Aunt Polly's fence, Tom is desperate to get out of it by any means necessary. He spends the day persuading a series of local boys that whitewashing is fun. This "reverse-psychology" is so convincing that the boys not only beg to take over, they actually bribe him with their most treasured possessions. At the end of the day Tom is loaded with this juvenile largesse, and is rewarded by Aunt Polly for a job well done.

The episodic structure continues with scenes of mock warfare, the appearance of Becky Thatcher—with whom Tom falls instantly in love—and a thematically important episode in which Tom imagines and stages his own death scene. A Sabbath School episode shows Tom using his largesse to barter for the paper equivalent of 2000 successfully memorized verses, and he presents them to the teacher to get his reward. His real ignorance is quickly and embarrassingly exposed.

Next readers are introduced to a boy who will become—in a later novel—one of the most important characters in American fiction: Huckleberry Finn. Huck is a sort of comic figure in his clown's outfit of discarded adult's clothes. After talking to Huck, Tom goes to school, where he "courts" Becky Thatcher. They get engaged, but Tom mentions a prior relationship and Becky is devastated. Hurt, Tom takes out his frustration by playing Robin Hood with a friend. Here readers discover that his inability to learn simple Bible verses is due to lack of interest, since he is capable of memorizing whole pages of his favorite books.

Injun Joe

When Tom and Huck go to the town cemetery, the story that threads the novel together begins. In a scene straight out of the novels Tom loves, Injun Joe and Muff Potter enter the graveyard with young Dr. Robinson in order to "snatch" bodies. While Tom and Huck watch, Injun Joe attacks the doctor, and the men fight. After Muff is knocked unconscious, the scene climaxes with the grisly stabbing of Dr. Robinson. The boys run away, and Joe makes Potter believe that he is the murderer.

From this point, the shadow of Injun Joe hangs over Tom's adventures. The boys decide not to tell anyone for fear of reprisals, and they swear in blood to stay silent. Tom's depression over the murder deepens when Becky refuses to forgive him. The discovery of Dr. Robinson's body "electrifies" the village, and Tom and Huck go to the crime scene. They watch as Muff is arrested and confesses to the murder.

Their consciences troubled, both boys try to appease their guilt over Muff's false arrest by taking the condemned man food and gifts. Convinced that he is unloved, Tom decides to take up a life of crime. Together with Huck and Joe Harper, he decides to live out another of his favorite stories and become a pirate. They raft away and watch as a search is conducted for drowned people. Tom realizes that the "drownded people" are themselves—the town thinks that they are dead. Tom has gotten his earlier wish: he will be able to witness his own funeral. After sneaking home and watching his heartbroken Aunt, Tom makes his plans, and the boys make a dramatic entrance in the middle of their own funerals.

The trial of Muff Potter grows closer, and Tom gets into more scrapes, culminating in a heroic act in which he saves Becky from punishment and she forgives him. The happiness does not last; the trial is now due. In a dramatic turn, Tom is called to the stand by Muff's lawyer. As he exonerates Muff, Injun Joe flees from the building.

Though Tom is terrified at first, time passes and it seems less likely that Joe will come back for revenge. Tom returns to his favorite occupations, and he and Huck go searching for buried treasure in a haunted house. While the boys hide in the loft, two strangers enter the building; one of them is Injun Joe in disguise. The men have stolen money, and while they are burying it they find more—thousands of dollars in gold. They take it and leave, Joe vowing to get his revenge. The boys decide that the target of Joe's revenge must be Tom himself.

The boys decide to track down the "treasure" and go in search of Joe. They find him at a tavern, and Huck begins his surveillance of the men. Tom, however, is distracted by a newly-returned Becky and her plans for a picnic. On the day of the excursion, Becky arranges to stay at a friend's house. After eating, the village children decide to play in the caves. As they play, the story returns to Huck, on watch for Injun Joe. He follows Joe and his partner out of their lair and listens as Joe explains who the real object of his revenge is: the Widow Douglas. The widow's husband had once had Joe horsewhipped, and he has decided to "slit her nostrils." Panicking, Huck runs for help. Some townsmen scare off the villains, but fail to catch them. Huck tells them that one of the villains is Injun Joe, but keeps quiet about the treasure.

It is not until the next day that the village realizes that Becky and Tom are missing. A desperate search through the caves begins and Tom's wish to stage his funeral seems to have come terrifyingly true this time. In a "flashback" readers find out what has happened. Wandering away from the others, Tom and Becky become lost in the caves. As their supplies run out and they search for an escape route, they narrowly miss bumping into Injun Joe, who is hiding in the caves. Scared, they retreat, and Becky seems near death.

Next, the novel jumps to celebrations in the village—the children have been found. Through the narrative device of Tom telling his story to his family, we learn that the children escaped when Tom found a side route out. Weeks pass and the children begin to recover, while Injun Joe seems to be forgotten. Tom is told that the caves have been sealed up for two weeks, and the horrible truth becomes clear. Joe is still in there. When the doors to the caves are opened, Injun Joe's dead body is found lying at the entrance.

Tom and Huck realize that the treasure is in the caves, and they retrieve it. They return to an excited crowd, and the Widow Douglas announces that she plans to adopt Huck. Tom blurts out that Huck is rich. The story is told, and the money is invested for them, while poor Huck is civilized almost to death. Escaping back to his old life, he can only be enticed back by Tom's promise that they will be "robbers" together, for which they both need to be respectable. With that promise of further adventures, the novel closes.


Aunt Polly

The sister of Tom and Sid's dead mother, Aunt Polly has taken in both boys to live with her and her daughter Mary. Aunt Polly loves Tom but is both exasperated and amused by him. She is always shaking her head and wringing her hands over his behavior, but her soft heart prevents her from punishing him very strictly.

Widow Douglas

Huck Finn saves the Widow Douglas from Injun Joe when he overhears Injun Joe's plans to mu-tilate her and enlists the help of the Welshman and his sons to protect her. A pious and good-hearted woman of St. Petersburg, the Widow Douglas later takes Huck Finn into her home with the intention of "civilizing" him.

Huckleberry Finn

Referred to by the narrator as both the "juvenile pariah of the village" and as a "romantic outcast," Huckleberry Finn is "cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers" of St. Petersburg and secretly admired by their children. The son of the town drunkard, who is usually absent from the village and thus from his parental responsibilities, Huck sleeps in hogshead barrels or on doorsteps, wears castoff men's clothing, swears, smokes, and lives by his own rules. Huck and Tom Sawyer are good friends because, although Tom is "under strict orders not to play with" Huck, he admires Huck so much that he disobeys Aunt Polly's orders and secretly finds ways to play with his outcast friend. Viewed by adults as being "idle and lawless and vulgar and bad," Huck actually possesses a conscience and a heart. When he goes to the Welshman to report Injun Joe's threats against the Widow Douglas, he admits to the older man that he worries about his character and the way he is perceived by others. He confesses that "sometimes [he] can't sleep much, on account of thinking about [his bad reputation] and sort of trying to strike out a new way of doing." Huck saves the Widow Douglas from Injun's Joe's revenge, and she in turn takes Huck in and attempts to "civilize" him, with clean clothes and church and polite manners. But Huck is miserable under her protective care and runs away, explaining later to Tom, "It's awful to be tied up so."

Joe Harper

Tom Sawyer's "bosom friend," Joe is a member of Tom's pirate gang and as such calls himself "the Terror of the Seas." When the "pirates" run away on a short-lived pirating adventure, Joe is the first to admit to homesickness.

Injun Joe

Known as a "half-breed," meaning he is half white and half Native American, Injun Joe is the villain of the novel and a force of evil in St. Petersburg. He is an angry, vengeful, amoral man who thinks nothing of robbing Hoss Williams's grave, killing Dr. Robinson, stealing gold, or threatening old widows and young boys. Injun Joe's name, which is an abbreviated slang pronunciation of "Indian Joe," shows that his identity is so closely tied to his being a Native American that the townspeo-ple—and the narrator—cannot think of him except in terms of his being an Indian. When Injun Joe, Muff Potter, and Dr. Robinson are in the cemetery to rob Hoss Williams's grave, Injun Joe begins to argue with Robinson about money. He points out that years before, Robinson had treated him poorly when he was in need, and he tells Robinson, "I swore I'd get even with you if it took a hundred years…. Did you think I'd forget? The Injun blood ain't in me for nothing." The inhabitants of St. Petersburg appear to be basically decent, good people; yet Injun Joe represents a dark force among them, embodying the possibilities of human evil.

Mr. Jones

See The Welshman

Amy Lawrence

Tom was in love with Amy before Becky Thatcher arrived in St. Petersburg.


Tom Sawyer's cousin, Mary is Aunt Polly's daughter and treats Tom sweetly, patiently helping him learn his Scripture verses and get dressed up for church.

The Model Boy

Hated by all the boys in town, the Model Boy is "the pride of all the matrons" because he is so polite and well-behaved.

Willie Mufferson

See The Model Boy

Muff Potter

Set up by Injun Joe to take the blame for Dr. Robinson's murder, Muff Potter is disreputable enough to be a believable murderer. Unable to recall what really happened on the night of the murder because Dr. Robinson had knocked him unconscious in a scuffle, Potter denies killing the doctor. Out of guilt for their secret knowledge of the truth, Tom and Huck are kind to Potter when he is in jail, and in spite of his mortal fear of Injun Joe, Tom finally tells the truth about the murder at Potter's trial, resulting in Potter's freedom.

Dr. Robinson

Dr. Robinson is killed by Injun Joe after they set out together on a midnight grave robbery. Tom and Huck are silent witnesses as Injun Joe takes revenge on the young doctor for having insulted him five years before.

Ben Rogers

Ben is the first boy Tom dupes into whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence for him.

Media Adaptations

  • In 1930 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was adapted by Paramount as a film entitled Tom Sawyer. It was directed by John Cromwell and stars Jackie Coogan and Mitzi Green.
  • The novel was also adapted as a film entitled Tom Sawyer by Selznick International in 1938. Directed by Norman Taurog and starring Walter Brennan and May Robson, the film is available on video, distributed by Trimark.
  • A 1939 film adaptation, Tom Sawyer, Detective (Paramount), was directed by Louis King and starred Porter Hall, Donald O'Connor, Elisabeth Risdon, and Janet Waldo.
  • In 1973 Clemens's novel was adapted into a musical film version (United Artists) entitled Tom Sawyer, directed by Don Taylor and starring Johnnie Whitaker, Jodie Foster, Celeste Holm, and Warren Oates. Available on video (MGM Home Entertainment) and with a musical score composed by Robert and Richard Sherman, this film received three Academy Award nominations.
  • In 1995 Disney adapted the novel as a film entitled Tom and Huck directed by Peter Hewitt and starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer and Brad Renfro as Huckleberry Finn. This version is also available on video (Walt Disney Home Video).
  • Read by Pat Bottino, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is available on cassette from Blackstone Audiobooks.

Sid Sawyer

Tom's younger half-brother, Sid is "a quiet boy" with "no adventurous, troublesome ways," and so he and Tom do not get along with each other. Sid takes pleasure in tattling on Tom when Tom had gotten into mischief.

Tom Sawyer

Mischievous but lovable, Tom Sawyer is a fictional character so well known that he has become a folkloric figure. Even those who have not read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer may be familiar with the episodes in which Tom tricks his friends into whitewashing his aunt's fence for him, spies on his own funeral, acts as the surprise witness against Injun Joe at Muff Potter's murder trial, and gets lost in the cave with his beloved Becky Thatcher. Tom's Aunt Polly takes good care of Tom and his half-brother Sid, although often Tom exasperates her when he gets into trouble. He sneaks out his window at night to go on adventures with his friend Huck Finn, believes in superstitions, and yearns to lead what he sees as the exciting life of a pirate or robber. He can't sit still in church or in school and always finds some diversion, such as watching a bug, to make the time pass more quickly. Tom is happiest when he is off having thrilling adventures with his friends: searching for buried treasure, running away for a few days to a sandbar in the Mississippi River in a game of pirates, or hiding in the cemetery at midnight. He adores Becky Thatcher, the new girl in town, and shows off to get her attention. Tom is a boy of strong emotions and great imagination, and in spite of his mischievous ways he has a good heart: his rescues of Becky when she is heading for trouble with the schoolmaster and of Muff Potter when he is on trial for murder show that Tom knows the right thing to do.

Becky Thatcher

Becky is the new girl in town, daughter of the "august" Judge Thatcher. When Tom sees Becky for the first time, with her blue eyes and "yellow hair plaited into two long tails," he falls in love with her immediately, forsaking his old love, Amy Lawrence. At Becky's picnic, Tom and Becky become lost together in the cave and are missing for five days. During their ordeal inside the cave, Becky fears for her life and depends upon Tom for reassurance and support.

Judge Thatcher

Becky Thatcher's father, Judge Thatcher is a respected county judge, brother to St. Petersburg's lawyer Thatcher.

Rebecca Thatcher

See Becky Thatcher

The Welshman

The Welshman listens carefully to Huck when Huck reports that he has overheard Injun Joe's threats of injuring the Widow Douglas. The Welshman and his grown sons hurry out to investigate the trouble and later welcome Huck back into their house, a rare experience for the outcast Huck.



Children's friendships are at the center of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom's family—Aunt Polly, Mary, and Sid—does not always appreciate him and does not figure into his rich imaginative life. However, Tom's friends—Joe Harper and Huck Finn in particular—look up to him precisely because he is so imaginative and adventurous. The boys see each other as they want to be seen, and together they create an exciting world of intrigue and adventure. The friendship between Tom and Huck especially is highlighted in the novel. Tom admires Huck for his freedom from adults' rules, and he knows that his association with Huck makes him appear daring, an image he relishes. Tom also cares about Huck, concerned that he is alone in the world. When the boys return from their pirating adventure to attend their own funerals, Tom and Joe are smothered with affection by their families while Huck stands awkwardly alone, with no one to welcome him home. Tom points out to Aunt Polly that "it ain't fair. Somebody's got to be glad to see Huck." Tom and Huck share a deep belief in superstitions and a love of adventure, imagining themselves as pirates and robbers in partnership with one another. Tom is so loyal to Huck that he repeatedly disobeys Aunt Polly's orders not to play with Huck, and Tom proudly announces to the schoolmaster that he was late for school because he was playing with the forbidden Huck, even though he knows he will be punished for it. The boys often use dramatic conventions to represent their loyalty to one another. For example, after they secretly observe Injun Joe's murder of Dr. Robinson in the cemetery, Tom writes an oath that "they will keep mum about this and … wish they may drop down dead in their tracks if they ever tell and Rot." Tom and Huck then sign the oath with their own blood.

Because Tom is a child of the community, and thus assured of adult protection, he feels safe enough to testify against Injun Joe in Muff Potter's murder trial. But Tom keeps secret Huck's knowledge of the same situation, because Huck fears Injun Joe's retaliation and knows he is without serious protection. Huck and Tom's friendship rises above the social conventions of St. Petersburg. They are friends because each likes the other for who he is, and it matters little to either that their society frowns upon their friendship.


Tom Sawyer's imagination rules his life and shapes his world. He takes every opportunity to make a game of life, embarking on such romantic endeavors as digging for buried treasure or organizing his friends into a band of pirates with names like "the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main," "Huck Finn the Red-Handed," and "the Terror of the Seas." Perhaps not always completely original in their imaginings, Tom and his friends play Robin Hood by reciting dialogue that they have memorized from the book. Although he claims to reject many of the rules of the adult world, Tom has his own clear rules about how pirates must behave, what social class robbers must come from, and how certain superstitions work. His imaginings may free him from his rulebound world, but they often place him in another such world. His imaginative world and his "real" world—the mundane life of St. Petersburg—do not often collide. Yet when these two worlds do collide—such as when Tom and Huck witness the murder in the cemetery, and when Tom realizes how badly he hurt Aunt Polly when he ran away to play pirates, and when Tom and Becky's adventure in the cave turns life-threatening—Tom is able to understand the limits of imagination. In each case, Tom's empathy for another person—Muff Potter, Dr. Robinson, Aunt Polly, Becky—causes him to realize that he needs to stop pretending and deal with the situation at hand.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research white Americans' attitudes toward Native Americans in the mid-19th century. Does Injun Joe's status as evil incarnate reflect the popular view of Native Americans in that period?
  • Consider the life of Huckleberry Finn in terms of today's standards: How would a homeless child, the son of an alcoholic who has essentially abandoned him, be treated in the United States today? What factors in Huck's world make it possible for him to live as he wishes, sleeping outside in barrels and on doorsteps and wearing rags? How can Twain romanticize a child like Huck, and why would Huck not be considered romantic in today's society?
  • The role of women in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer seems to be that of a civilizing force: Aunt Polly trying to teach Tom how to behave, the Widow Douglas taking Huck in to "introduce him to society," the young ladies on Examination Evening reading essays with titles such as "Religion in History" and "Filial Love." Research attitudes toward women in 1840s American culture. What kinds of tasks were white women expected to fulfill, and what was their role in helping to shape their world?
  • In the 1840s, Missouri represented the American frontier. What did this mean? What form of government existed for Missouri then, and how was it enforced? What attitudes did people "back East" have about those who had moved out West to the frontier, and how did the frontiersmen and women see themselves?

Truth and Falsehood

The first words Tom Sawyer speaks in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are a lie. Aunt Polly is looking for Tom and shouting his name, and when she finds him hiding in the closet and asks him what he is doing, he replies, in an obvious lie, "Nothing." She points to the jam all over his mouth and hands and asks what it is, and he replies, "I don't know, aunt," another obvious lie. Tom is thus introduced as a mischievous boy who gets into trouble, although Aunt Polly's laughter upon Tom's escape from her disapproval shows that his lies and disobedience are essentially unimportant to her. Tom lies frequently throughout the novel, mostly about where he's been or what he's been doing, and mostly to avoid getting into trouble. However, when telling the truth really matters, Tom knows he must not lie. When he first returns home after his pirating adventure, he feels bad about having hurt Aunt Polly by scaring her with his long absence, so he lies to her about having had a dream about her when he was away on his pirating adventure. When she later discovers that the story of the dream had all been a lie, Tom realizes that "what had seemed like a good joke before, and very ingenious … merely looked mean and shabby now." His conscience prods him finally to tell her the truth of what really happened. But this time, Aunt Polly doesn't believe him, and she refuses to until she finds the piece of bark in his jacket pocket with the note to her on it that he had said he had written. Tom's conscience again leads him to tell the truth when he decides he must help Muff Potter. Because he cannot in good conscience let Potter be convicted of Dr. Robinson's murder, Tom decides to be a witness at Potter's murder trial, even though he knows by doing so he places himself in some danger with Injun Joe. In spite of the ease with which lying comes to him, Tom's conscience and his ability to tell the truth when he should place him in stark contrast to Injun Joe. Injun Joe, a man without a conscience and thus capable of evil, lies and misrepresents himself for the purpose of personal gain.


Point of View

The novel's narration is third person, limited omniscient, with Tom Sawyer as the central consciousness. This means that the story is told about Tom's world and is particularly focused on him by a narrator who is able to understand the motivations and feelings of some of the characters. This point of view earns the reader's amused admiration of an unlikely hero. Tom is a mischievous boy, an orphan, who cares nothing for school or church or any other polite social conventions but instead spends most of his time pretending that he is a pirate or a robber, sneaking out his window at midnight to have secret adventures with his friends in places like cemeteries, and entirely likely to have in his possession objects like dead cats. Tom Sawyer's character is a realistic portrayal of a young boy who gets into trouble constantly, trying the patience of the adults around him while making them smile. The novel's point of view makes Tom sympathetic by showing how he often feels guilty or sorry or brave. A more objective narration of Tom's antics—one that does not look into his mind—might make him seem only naughty and tiresome. The glimpses into his often noble intentions as he conjures up his schemes serve to temper his character: he is not a bad boy, just an imaginative one.


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is set in the 1840s, mainly in St. Petersburg, Missouri, a small fictional village where everyone knows everyone and the people are unsophisticated. When Judge Thatcher, the county judge, visits the village church during the Sunday service, the children are fascinated, impressed that he has come from "Constantinople, twelve miles away—so he had traveled, and seen the world." Yet in spite of their lack of worldliness, the people of St. Petersburg attempt to keep up "civilized" practices such as having their children memorize Scripture passages and recite poems and other readings at school on Examination Evening. The adults of the village watch out for each other's children: when Tom and Becky are discovered to be lost in the cave, the entire town turns out to help search for them.

St. Petersburg is a true community. Even the threat of evil, embodied by Injun Joe, is squelched by the human desire to help others. For example, Huck swallows his fear of Injun Joe and goes to the Welshman to help save the Widow Douglas, and the Welshman gladly goes to the Widow's aid. In this safe world, Tom Sawyer can feel secure in his human connections but also free to exercise his imagination. St. Petersburg mirrors Twain's childhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. St. Petersburg, like Hannibal, is situated along the Mississippi River, a source of transportation, beauty, and power. The river's presence near St. Petersburg makes the boys' pirate adventure possible and reminds them of the great world beyond their tiny village.


Realism involves the portrayal of characters and situations that appear to be drawn from real life. In the nineteenth century, realism often involved characters and settings that were ordinary and far from genteel. While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes a somewhat romantic view of childhood in general—full of freedom and imaginative adventures—most of the children in the novel are themselves not romanticized. Tom and his friends get dirty, spit, sneak around behind their elders' backs, and carry around dead cats. Although he can also be charming and appealing, Tom lies to Aunt Polly, shows off to gain Becky Thatcher's attention, scratches himself when his clothes itch, and tricks his friends into doing his work: in short, he is human, possessing flaws and weaknesses. Twain's illustration of both sides of Tom—the appealing and the exasperating—makes Tom more realistic. Huck Finn's character, too, is shown in some depth, which also makes him more realistic. Huck is romanticized by many of the other children in town, as they envy what appears to be his utter freedom from rules and constraints. However, he has moments when he worries about his status in the world and wishes he weren't such an outcast, and his dark moments make him more real.

Historical Context

The Gilded Age

Mark Twain's 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, which he wrote in collaboration with his Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner, gave its name to the mood of materialistic excess and cynical political corruption that started with the Grant administration in 1869 and prevailed in the 1870s and beyond. To be gilded is to be coated in gold, so the phrase "The Gilded Age" refers directly to the opulent tastes and jaded sensibilities of America's wealthy during this period. The appearance of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer during the Gilded Age represents a nostalgic look back at a simpler, less expansionist and less industrialized time in American history.

Expansion was a major theme of American society in the post-Civil War period. When the war ended in 1865, the United States was bigger, more powerful and richer than ever before, and it continued to grow. The way post-war Americans behaved and saw themselves was different: as a group they possessed greater energy, greater ambition, and a greater sense of potential. The American economy was becoming increasingly more industrialized. The transcontinental railroad was built, immigrants from Europe were pouring into the cities, westward expansion was occurring, and new farming technologies made it possible for farmers to grow more crops more successfully. The population was growing rapidly, helping to create a large labor pool, and labor unions were on the rise. The growth of industry, supported by the war and the demand it created for supplies, created enormous wealth for many Americans. Powerful businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan built their companies—U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, and Morgan Bank, respectively—into multimillion-dollar enterprises and became known by their detractors as "robber barons." The very wealthy flocked to summer vacation colonies like Newport, Rhode Island, where they built huge summer "cottages" that often were opulent mansions. Money and power were equated with each other during this period, and some of the rich and powerful were not above political corruption. At the time, U.S. senators were elected by the state legislators rather than by the voting public, and it was not uncommon for a legislator to accept bribes for electing a wealthy man's senator of choice.

However, not every American during this period was wealthy or able to vote; many Americans remained disenfranchised and poor. Women did not yet have the right to vote, and the women's suffrage movement had been underway for years. Black Americans also could not vote, and beginning at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the legal apparatus that kept blacks separate from white society came into being, as Jim Crow laws were enacted by Southern states in an effort to suppress blacks. The Ku Klux Klan also began its brutal work in this period, with its goal of frightening and murdering Southern blacks into submission. The U.S. Army's main opponent during this time was Native Americans, who were being suppressed and forced onto reservations. So while the Gilded Age, as it is now called, was about controlling the population and exploiting the land and other resources, all in the service of expanding the power of American culture and society, many Americans remained powerless.

American Literature of the 1870s

American literature following the Civil War began to reflect Americans' new sense of nationalism and diversity. Realism dominated the literary scene, as the arts began to portray ordinary people in their everyday lives. The three major literary figures of the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century—Twain, Henry James and William Dean Howells—did much to bring realism into the forefront of American letters. In the 1870s alone, Twain published The Gilded Age (1873) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), along with many other shorter works; James published his first two popular and successful works of fiction, The American (1877) and Daisy Miller (1878); and Howells, while he published several novels during the 1870s, achieved more success as the powerful editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the most influential literary magazine of the time. Howells was a friend and editor to both Twain and James, whose bodies of work could not be more different from each other.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1840s: Slavery of Africans was widely practiced throughout the Southern states of the nation. Slaves were considered the property of their owners and possessed no civil rights: they could not vote, legally marry, or own property.

    1876: Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States, the radical wing of the Republican party attempted to remake the South without slavery. This period of reformation, called Reconstruction, ended in 1876. The civil rights gains made during Reconstruction were lost following the end of President Ulysses S. Grant's administration.

    Today: African Americans possess full civil rights under the U.S. Constitution and hold positions of power in the U.S. government, including seats on the Supreme Court, in the Senate, and in the President's Cabinet. In spite of these gains, race relations continue to be a divisive issue in American society.
  • 1840s: In 1840, Missouri was the westernmost state in the Union. Presidents Polk and Tyler pursued policies to fulfill America's so-called "manifest destiny" to expand to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The war with Mexico resulted in the annexation of the Southwest. Texas became a state in 1845; California, virtually unknown in 1840, became a state in 1850.

    1876: Colorado entered the Union. Alaska had been purchased by the United States in 1872. The West was rapidly becoming populated, and in 1890 the U.S. government declared the frontier closed.

    Today: Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states in the 1950s, and in the 1990s the physical boundaries of the United States appear fixed, but some wish to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.
  • 1840s: Industrialization was just beginning in the United States. Steam power transformed water transportation from rafts to steamboats. Steam was also beginning to transform travel on land with railroads. Samuel B. Morse's telegraph, a new means of communication, first operated successfully in 1844.

    1876: Industrialization was transforming the country, and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition celebrated technology. Alexander Graham Bell's telephone was introduced at the Exhibition. The transcontinental railroad had been finished in 1869, and by 1876 the railroad had become central to the industrial economy.

    Today: The information economy has succeeded the industrial economy. While the railroad was at the center of the industrial economy, the computer is at the center of the information economy. The Internet has produced a global communication network, and travel by automobile and airplane has largely replaced rail travel.
  • 1840s: From 1840 to 1855, about 3.5 million immigrants came into the United States, attracted by the promise of wealth and freedom. Most of the immigrants in this period came from Ireland and Germany.

    1876: Changing the population and the way American cities developed, immigration had become by 1876 a huge influence on American culture. In 1876, the nation was on the verge of its largest-ever influx of immigrants: nine million in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century.

Twain's work from this period brought him wide popularity: it is mostly humorous, focusing on characters who are typically uncultivated and not part of the Eastern establishment. In contrast, James's work, which was never especially popular with the reading audience, subtly probes the social conventions that shape the world of the wealthy, educated, and civilized American. Howells saw the genius in both writers and their work and helped to guide them in their careers.

While Twain and James were the best-known and most influential writers of their day, many other writers and styles of writing were also emerging in the 1870s. The nation's expansionist mood was reflected by the proliferation of regional, or "local color," writers, who wrote about their own corners of the rapidly growing nation. Local color writing, another form of realism, generally sought to preserve through fiction the small-town ways that were being threatened by industrialization. By the 1870s, writers such as Bret Harte, Joel Chandler Harris, and Sarah Orne Jewett had begun publishing their work on the West, the South, and New England, respectively. In the next ten to twenty years, Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Hamlin Garland would add their regional voices—New Orleans, New England, the South, the Midwest—to the mix.

Critical Overview

Often discussed alongside its critically acclaimed and more popular sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is generally thought by critics to be artistically a lesser work than Huckleberry Finn. Yet in spite of its shortcomings as a work of art, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has remained popular around the world throughout the more than 120 years since its publication in 1876. Twain himself called this novel his "hymn to boyhood."

About Twain in general, Henry Nash Smith says that "there can be no doubt that Mark Twain was an artist of the people. His fresh handling of the materials and techniques of backwoods storytellers is the clearest example in our history of the adaptation of a folk art to serious literary uses." Walter Blair discusses in his article "Tom Sawyer" the novel's sources, both autobiographical and literary. Twain is widely known to have used people and places from his childhood in the writing of Tom Sawyer, and Blair also shows in his article that "Literary influences … shaped both incidents and the over-all pattern of Tom Sawyer." In his 1960 book Mark Twain, Lewis Leary refers to the fact that upon its publication, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer "placed Mark Twain once more at the head of best-seller lists." Leary states, "Probably no more continuingly popular book has ever appeared in the United States." Leary discusses the con-struction of the novel, claiming that although it seems "loose and shambling … there is artistry in it also … [and] … perhaps because [Twain] worked long over it, this first independent novel … is better constructed than any he was to write again."

Granville Hicks writes in The Great Tradition (1935) that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer starts out as seeming to be more than just a boys' book. Hicks believes that the novel begins as "a fine and subtle portrayal of the Missouri frontier." However, Hicks goes on to say that Twain's artistic powers were limited and that the book ends "in the tawdry melodrama of conventional juvenile fiction." In short, Hicks feels that Twain's book does not deliver on its promise. In Mark Twain: An Introduction and Interpretation, Frank Baldanza claims that Twain's reputation "is based firmly on the unparalleled achievement of his books about boys," namely The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Baldanza calls Tom Sawyer "a delightful book," one that "gives a genial and warmhearted backward glance at boyhood in Missouri" yet that also is "a serious and adult book." Baldanza sees the seriousness of the novel in the fact that "in the moral sphere, both Tom and Huck pay plentifully for their natural desires and impulses." John C. Gerber, in his book Mark Twain, acknowledges that "Tom Sawyer may not have the art or the profundity of Huckleberry Finn, but as an idyll of boyhood it has no peer anywhere." Gerber defends Tom Sawyer as a portrait of "boys as they are" and as a comic work. Like so many other critics, Gerber highlights the book's broad popularity, pointing out that Tom Sawyer "has been translated into over two dozen foreign languages and its sales, domestic and foreign, extend into the millions." According to Gerber, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is second in popularity among Twain's books only to Huckleberry Finn.

Contemporary criticism about both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn often looks at the treatment of race and racism in these novels and the world they portray. While Huckleberry Finn has become controversial in some circles because of its use of language that degrades African Americans, Tom Sawyer does not offend in the same way, perhaps because slavery and its implicit racism exist more in the background of this novel than they do in Huck Finn. Shelley Fisher Fishkin points out in Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture that "the Hannibal of Twain's youth, like the St. Petersburg of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, was a slaveholding society; but only in Huckleberry Finn would this fact struggle to the foreground. The world of childhood fantasy, play, and adventure had preoccupied him in Tom Sawyer." Fishkin sees none of Twain's growing "moral indignation" in Tom Sawyer, and she speculates that "Twain may have suspected that to recreate the boyhood pastoral of Tom Sawyer effectively, he had to suppress that troublesome thing called a 'conscience' that had begun to make him ask some difficult questions—such as whether that boyhood world was not so 'innocent' after all."


Tabitha McIntosh-Byrd

McIntosh-Byrd is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following essay she explores the ways in which Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer can be read as a powerful critique of American identity.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an extremely difficult work to approach analytically because it is so embedded in the reader's own childhood. It is read in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world, and has become iconographic of childhood itself—especially American childhood. Indeed, this has been its reception from its initial publication. The first review, written by William Dean Howells in 1876, called it "a wonderful study of the boy-mind" which exists beyond the control or comprehension of adult society. His comments appeared in Atlantic Monthly before the book was even published, and thus set the framework for the way in which the novel would be read. Clemens himself did not read his book this way, a fact that is suggested by his initial conviction that the story was written for an adult audience. Though his wife persuaded him to publish it as a children's book, Tom Sawyer's story can still be recovered as a novel for adults—a savage satire on adult hypocrisy and American cultural identity.

Tom Sawyer is generally read as the first truly American novel: a cathartic attempt by Clemens to write his own childhood and the childhood of America into a coherent literary whole. His success is attested to by the timeless status of Tom as a sort of "Every-Boy" for American culture—the literary epitome of the ingenuity, imagination, and pluck which form the basis of America's understanding of its own national character. In this reading, Tom's flouting of authority is a paradigm for American self-determination in the face of tyranny, his character expressing the intrinsic essence of freedom from tyranny and restraint. If we accept this and then look more closely at the structural motifs and internal parallels of Clemens' novel, a very different picture of the national character begins to emerge. The novel, like the village in which it is set, seems to be bathed in perpetually fair weather and sunshine. There is, however, always a darker side. Just as the sunshine of the village is belied by the dank, labyrinthine caves, so the novel has deeper and more disturbing resonances than are at first apparent.

To find this darker side, we must start by questioning the validity of Howells' distinction between the adult and the child mind in the novel. Are Tom's behavior, responses, needs, and follies really any different from those of the adults around him? In two early scenes this distinction would seem to be untenable. The first is the Sabbath School scene where Tom's "wily fraud" wins him a Bible. Several direct parallels are made here between the behavior of the adults and the children. Faced with the unexpected appearance of a guest of honor, adults and children alike respond with the same show of self-importance:

Mr. Walters fell to "showing off"…. The librarian "showed off"…. The young lady teachers "showed off"…. The little girls "showed off" … the little boys "showed off" … and above it all the great man sat and beamed … for he was "showing off" too.

The only thing that differentiates the individuals in the Sabbath School is the method with which they express the same desire to be noticed. This series of comparisons suggests that public altruism, making spit-wads, enforcing discipline, and fulfilling the duties of public office should all be understood as essentially the same act. More subtly, the language that Clemens uses to describe Tom's actions in this episode is insidiously reflective of the adults that surround him. Tom's successful and hard-nosed bartering for the chits that will win him a Bible is described in the language of the adults' economy. In this way, the chits become "certified checks," which represent "warehoused" knowledge on the "premises" of Tom's brain. Judge Thatcher encourages him to say that he would rather have this "warehoused" knowledge than "any money" he could be offered, which draws the analogy tighter. Tom's gathering of this paper "wealth" is done to elevate himself above his peers and impress the powerful. If this wealth performs the same function in the adults' economy as it does in the children's, then the acquisition of money is being presented as foolish, egotistical, and childlike.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), reintroduces the character of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer's best friend. While floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, Huck and runaway slave Jim escape the bonds of civilization and gain insight into human nature and conscience. Many critics consider Huckleberry Finn to be one of the greatest American novels of all time.
  • Twain's Roughing It (1871), a book which grew out of his journey to the West with his brother, is a humorous, loosely-constructed travel narrative that relies on the American storytelling tradition.
  • Twain's lifelong love affair with the Mississippi River is expressed in his Life on the Mississippi (1883), a compilation of travel narrative, anecdotes, history of the river, observations on American society, and stories from Twain's boyhood.
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1958 edition edited by Charles Neider), which Twain worked on for years before his death, is a book in which Twain says he speaks "freely" because "I shall be dead when the book issues from the press."

The second incident again takes place in church. Bored during a long service, Tom falls back on teasing a pinch-bug and then watches with smothered amusement as it torments a stray poodle. Despite their public show of faith and piety, the adults of St. Petersburg partake of exactly the same feelings:

Other people, uninterested in the sermon, found relief in the beetle and they eyed it too … the whole church was red-faced and suffocating with suppressed laughter.

Just as the Temperance Tavern in the village contains a secret and squalid whisky-drinking den, so the church-going community hides its secret boredom beneath a show of public faith. Just as Tom goes to church because his Aunt compels him, so the villagers go to church because the need to appear acceptable to their peers compels them. In this insistent parallel, the motivations of human beings are presented, again, as identical in essence. The desire to show off and the compulsion to go to church are both shown to be expressions of the same need to be accepted. Further, because it is the adults' own need that compels them, they are shown as more willfully self-deluded. After all, the children have no choice but to be told what to do. The adults give up their own pleasure on purpose.

The fact that both of these scenes take place within the church is indicative of an implicit critique of the role of religion in St. Petersburg culture that threads throughout the text—a critique that finds its main expression through the subtle development of the role of books within the text. Again, this is created through a series of oblique parallels. Tom's relationship to books and the Book (the Bible) is contrasted throughout. While he cannot successfully commit a single verse of the Good Book to memory, he has whole pages of his favorite books memorized. The deliberate juxtaposition of these failures and feats of memory suggests a basic similarity among all of the books in question—a sneaky way, as it were, of suggesting that all of the books in question are nothing more or less than fiction. With this juxtaposition firmly established, Tom's relationship to fiction becomes more understandable as satire. Just as the adults of the church act out their public lives in accordance to the teachings of the Book, so Tom acts out his public life in accordance with books. The charity that the village women want to posthumously extend to Injun Joe is thus performance, in the same way that Tom's posturing and playing is a performance of his favorite stories. The language of the Bible pervades the language of the adults and the language of adventure novels pervades Tom's language. The comparison that this provokes, like the comparisons between adult and child public behavior, devalues and deflates the self-importance of adult life.

There are darker aspects to these parallels. The single most important aspect of Tom's vivid fictions is that they are all actualized during the course of the novel. Tom is saturated in the lore of swashbuckling, Robert Louis Stephenson-style adventures. This is harmless until one by one his obsessions take form in village life. Tom dreams of piracy and buried treasure. Lo and behold, there is an actual theft and real buried treasure hidden by a man who, like Tom's pirates, wears a patch over one eye. Tom fantasizes about a literary-romantic version of his own funeral. By the end of the novel his real funeral has only been averted by luck. Tom stages and provokes mock-battles and wars. Almost immediately he is witness to an actual fight, with real bloodshed, resulting in a horrible murder. If we maintain the implicit conjunction between the Bible and Tom's books, this can be read as a very serious critique of the abuses of religion. Tom's utter belief in fiction shapes the world around him for the worse, and by extension, the adults' utter belief in the Bible is shown to warp the world in which they live. Biblical stories and romantic yarns become one and the same thing—both of them foolish and dangerous when they are acted out.

Ultimately, then, the reader is forced to ask questions that have painful answers. What does it mean if, as so many readers and critics have said, Tom is, in some essential way, America; if his story is America's story, and his character America's own? When we look at the bare bones of Tom's life and the evidence outlined above, it means that Clemens' America is an orphan country of unknown origins that begins—like the novel—in media res. It has no history and no future, existing in the framed bookends of the author's comments at the beginning and end of the tale. As he says:

It being strictly the history of a boy it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man.

If Tom is America, then America too will never have a "man's history." In place of history it has only narrative—fictions and performances through which it lives out a permanent pre-adolescence with no possibility for maturity. The adults of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are as childish as the children are adult—there is no distinction to be made, and hence no maturing wisdom to be counted on. We open where we end—in the middle of a fiction, with the end of an adventure and the start of a new one. In this disturbing world, the danger of these imagined adventures, as Tom's story so vividly illustrates, is that every last one of them comes true. Writing in the 1870s in the aftermath of the Civil War, Clemens has set his novel in the 1840s. Tom's blustering aggression, his acting out of battles, and his fascination with death and heroism become far less amusing when we keep these dates in mind. Seen through this lens, the book becomes a savage indictment of a coun-try that has brought itself to the brink of death because it is infatuated with vainglorious stories of heroism, battle, and divine sanction. What is more, because it has learned nothing from its experiences, it is—like Tom—doomed to repeat them.

Source: Tabitha McIntosh-Byrd, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff

In the following excerpt, Wolff asserts that Tom Sawyer is a protest against the female-dominated moral code of Twain's day and the lack of suitable masculine role models for boys.

Initially Twain had intended [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] to be a kind of bildungsroman: as Justin Kaplan reports, it was to have had four parts—"'1, Boyhood & youth; 2 y[outh] & early manh[ood]; 3 the Battle of Life in many lands; 4 (age 37 to [40?])….'" Yet the finished novel shows no sign of this early intention. In fact, Twain writes his "conclusion" with a kind of defensive bravado: "So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man." At least one reason for the author's decision may be found in the very nature of the world he was moved to create. There are no available men in it—no men whom Tom can fancy himself imitating—no newspaper office with a garrulous editor, no general store owner to purvey gossip and candy, no lawyer lounging in an office buzzing with flies and heavy with the odor of musty books. Of course there is Judge Thatcher, "a fine, portly, middle-aged gentleman with iron-gray hair." But Judge Thatcher presides in the county seat, twelve miles away; he enters the novel only very briefly in chapter IV (to witness Tom's triumph-turned-humiliation in Bible class) and thereafter disappears entirely until chapter XXXII, when he is summoned to rejoice in the safe return of the children from the cave. Many adults who have not read Tom Sawyer since the days of their youth are apt to recall Judge Thatcher as a rather more vivid personage than he truly is in the novel. Perhaps we are recollecting cinematic images, or perhaps our own imaginations supply his presence because we feel compelled to remedy the novel's deficiencies and "normalize" the town. But the stubborn fact remains. The town is not normal, certainly not congenial to a boy's coming of age.

It is, of course, a matriarchy (and in this respect, contrasts markedly with the various patriarchal systems that Huck encounters in his journey down the river), a world that holds small boys in bondage. The town that we are shown in this book is saturated with gentility, that is, with women's notions. A man may dispense Bible tickets or conduct the ceremony on Sundays; but the church service, the Sunday School exercises, the daily ritual of family prayers—these are all clearly defined as fundamental components of something that Aunt Polly (and other women like her) have defined as "duty" or "morality." Similarly, the mayor himself may judge the elocution contest; but this masculine salute to "culture" merely reinforces already established female allegiances to the melancholy and banally "eloquent" in literature. The very opening word of the novel establishes the situation. "'Tom!'" The boy's name called by his impatient aunt. "'Tom!'" The demanding tone permeates the novel, no other voice so penetrating or intrusive. What is a male child to do against this diminutive drill master? Surrender is out of the question: the dismal results of capitulation greet him in mournful, not quite masculine figures. Mr. Walters, the superintendent of the Sunday School, "a slim creature of thirty-five, with a sandy goatee and short sandy hair; he wore a stiff standing-collar … a fence that compelled a straight lookout ahead, and a turning of the whole body when a side view was required." And, more contemptible, "the Model Boy, Willie Mufferson [who took] as heedful care of his mother as if she were cut glass. He always brought his mother to church, and was the pride of all the matrons. The boys all hated him, he was so good."

Rebellion, however, is no easy thing to manage. Tom cannot bring himself to dislike Aunt Polly. Occasionally, he admits to loving her; and when he genuinely saddens her (as during his disappearance to the island), he discovers that "his heart [is] full of pity for her." Pity and its cousin guilt: these are Aunt Polly's most formidable weapons (no less so for being used without guile). "'She never licks anybody,'" Tom complains as he sets about beginning to whitewash the fence. "'She talks awful, but talk don't hurt—anyways it don't if she don't cry.'" Tom might be able to contend with open anger, but he receives only reproaches that insinuate themselves into that budding thing called "conscience." Discovered after a stealthy trip abroad at night, "Tom almost brightened in the hope that he was going to be flogged; but it was not so. His aunt wept over him and asked him how he could go and break her old heart so; and finally told him to go on, and ruin himself and bring her gray hairs with sorrow to the grave, for it was no use for her to try any more. This was worse than a thousand whippings, and Tom's heart was sorer now than his body. He cried, he pleaded for forgiveness, promised to reform over and over again." In Tom's world, female children are no easier to deal with than their adult models. Becky Thatcher rules him by alternating tears with lofty reproaches; and although Tom's angry feelings toward her are a good deal more available to him than any genuinely hostile feelings he might have toward the generation of mothers, he nonetheless continues to wish for a more direct and "manly" emotional code. "He was in a fine rage…. He moped into the schoolyard wishing she were a boy, and imagining how he would trounce her if she were."

With no acceptable model of "free" adult masculinity available, Tom does his best to cope with the prevailing feminine system without being irretrievably contaminated by it. His principal recourse is an entire repertoire of games and pranks and superstitions, the unifying motif of which is a struggle for control. Control over his relationship with Aunt Polly is a major area of warfare. Thus the first scene in the book is but one type of behavior that is repeated in ritual form throughout the book. Tom, caught with his hands in the jam jar—about to be switched.

"My! Look behind you, aunt!" The old lady whirled round, and snatched her skirts out of danger. The lad fled, on the instant, scrambled up the high board fence, and disappeared over it. His Aunt Polly stood surprised a moment, and then broke into a gentle laugh. "Hang the boy, can't I never learn anything? Ain't he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time?"

Crawling out his bedroom window at night is another type of such behavior, not important because it permits this or that specific act, but significant as a general assertion of the right to govern his own comings and goings. Bartering is still another type of this behavior. Trading for blue Bible coupons or tricking his playmates into painting the fence—these are superb inventions to win the prizes of a genteel society without ever genuinely submitting to it.

The logical continuation of such stratagems would be actual defiance: the rebellion of authentic adolescence to be followed by a manhood in which Tom and his peers might define the rules by which society is to be governed. But manhood never comes to Tom; anger and defiance remain disguised in the games of childhood.

Twain offers these pranks to us as if they were no more than humorous anecdotes; Aunt Polly is always more disposed to smile at them than to take them seriously. However, an acquiescence to the merely comic in this fiction will blind us to its darker side. A boy who seeks to control himself and his world so thoroughly is a boy deeply and constantly aware of danger—justifiably so, it would seem, for an ominous air of violence hangs over the entire tale. It erupts even into the apparently safe domestic sphere.

When the children depart from their schoolmaster in chapter XXI to begin the lazy summer recess, they leave him disgraced—his gilded, bald pate blazing as the ultimate spectacle in the school's pageant. "The boys were avenged. Vacation had come." Mr. Dobbin (even his name invites laughter) is hilariously humiliated, and he is apt to linger in our memories primarily as the butt of a good joke. Yet for most of the children most of the time, he is a source of genuine terror.

The one "respectable" man whom Tom sees regularly, Mr. Dobbin, is a sadist. Having reached maturity with the unsatisfied ambition to be a doctor, he spends his free time perusing a book of "anatomy" (that is, a book with pictures of naked people in it). His principal active pleasure is lashing the children, and the preparations for the approaching commencement exercises merely provide an excuse to be

severer and more exacting than ever…. His rod and his ferule were seldom idle now—at least among the smaller pupils…. Mr. Dobbin's lashings were very vigorous ones, too; for although he carried, under his wig, a perfectly bald and shiny head, he had only reached middle age and there was no sign of feebleness in his muscle. As the great day approached, all the tyranny that was in him came to the surface; he seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in punishing the least shortcomings.

If the village itself (with taverns, courthouse, jail, and deserted slaughter-house) is composed of the elements of crime and punishment, then Mr. Dobbin might be construed as one of the executioners—disarmed at only the final moment by the boys' "revenge" and exiting to catcalls and laughter. The joke is a fine exercise in imaginative power, but it does not fully succeed in countering the potency of the masculine "muscle" that is used with such consistent vindictiveness and violence….

Given the precarious balancing of control and violence in Tom's fantasies, we can easily comprehend his terrified fascination with Injun Joe's incursions into the "safety" of St. Petersburg. Accidentally witness to Injun Joe's murderous attack, Tom's first response is characteristic: he writes an oath in blood, pledging secrecy. "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer swears they will keep mum about this and they wish they may Drop down dead in Their tracks if they ever tell and Rot." It is an essentially "literary" maneuver, and Tom's superstitious faith in its efficacy is of a piece with the "rules" he has conned from books about outlaws. However, Injun Joe cannot easily be relegated to the realm of such villains. It is as if one element in Tom's fantasy world has torn loose and broken away from him, roaming restlessly—a ruthless predator—genuinely and mortally dangerous.

He has murdered a man, but perversely, he does not flee. Instead, he loiters about the town in disguise, waiting for the moment to arrive when he can take "revenge." Humiliated once by the Widow Douglas's husband (no longer available to the Indian's rage), Joe plans to work his will upon the surviving mate. "'Oh, don't kill her! Don't do that!'" his nameless companion implores.

"Kill? Who said anything about killing? I would kill him if he was here; but not her. When you want to get revenge on a woman you don't kill her—bosh! you go for her looks. You slit her nostrils—you notch her ears like a sow!… I'll tie her to the bed. If she bleeds to death, is that my fault? I'll not cry, if she does."

It is almost a parody of Tom's concocted "rules" for outlaws; even Injun Joe flinches from killing a woman. Sadistic torture (of a clearly sexual nature) is sufficient.

His grievance is twofold: against the absence of the man who would be his natural antagonist; and then against the woman who has inherited the man's property and authority. Seen in this light, his condition is not unlike the hero's. Tom, denied the example of mature men whom he might emulate, left with no model to define an adult nature of his own. Tom, adrift in a matriarchal world—paying the continuous "punishment" of guilt for the "crime" of his resentment at genteel restraints, conceiving carefully measured fantasies within which to voice (and mute) his feelings. Injun Joe is Tom's shadow self, a potential for retrogression and destructiveness that cannot be permitted abroad.

Yet genuine vanquishment is no easy task. No other adult male plays so dominant a role in the novel as Injun Joe. Indeed, no other male's name save Huck's and Tom's is uttered so often. The only contender for adult masculine prominence is that other angry man, Mr. Dobbin. But the schoolmaster's vicious instincts are, in the end, susceptible to control through humor: he can be humiliated and disarmed by means of a practical joke. After all is said and done, he is an "acceptable" male, that is, a domesticated creature. The Indian, an outcast and a savage, is unpredictable; he may turn fury upon the villagers or act as ultimate executioner for Tom. When Tom's tentative literary gestures prove insufficient, desperate remedies are necessary. Twain invokes the ultimate adventure. Death.

Death has several meanings for Tom. On the one hand, it is the final loss of self—a relinquishment of control that is both attractive and frightening. Confronted with reverses, Tom sometimes longs for the blissful passivity of death, deterred primarily by the sneaking fear that "guilt" might be "punishable" even in the unknown land to which he would travel.

It seemed to him that life was but a trouble, at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released; it must be very peaceful, he thought, to lie and slumber and dream forever and ever, with the wind whispering through the tree and caressing the grass and the flowers over the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more. If he only had a clean Sunday-school record he could be willing to go, and be done with it all.

On the other hand, properly managed, "death" might be the ultimate assertion of control, the means a boy might use in this puzzling female world to win a satisfactory "self" after all. "Ah," Tom's fantasy runs, "if he could only die temporarily!"

The triumph of "temporary death" and the fulfillment of that universal fantasy—to attend one's own funeral and hear the tearful eulogies and then to parade boldly down the aisle (patently and impudently alive)—is the central event in the novel. The escapade is not without its trials: a terrible lonesomeness during the self-imposed banishment and a general sense of emptiness whenever Tom falls to "gazing longingly across the wide river to where the village lay drowsing in the sun." Yet the victory is more than worth the pain. Temporarily, at least, Tom's fondest ambitions for himself have come true. "What a hero Tom was become, now! He did not go skipping and prancing, but moved with a dignified swagger as became a pirate who felt that the public eye was on him." He has definitely become "somebody" for a while—and he has achieved the identity entirely upon his own terms.

Yet this central miracle of resurrection is merely a rehearsal. Its results are not permanent, and Tom must once again submit to death and rebirth in order to dispatch the specter of Injun Joe forever.

The escapade begins light-heartedly enough: a party and a picnic up river into the countryside. Yet this moderated excursion into wilderness turns nightmare in the depths of the cave. "It was said that one might wander days and nights together through its intricate tangle of rifts and chasms, and never find the end of the cave…. No man 'knew' the cave. That was an impossible thing." Existing out of time, the cave is a remnant of man's prehistory—a dark and savage place, both fascinating and deadly. Once lost in the cave, Tom and Becky must face their elemental needs—hunger, thirst, and the horror, now quite real, of extinction. For Tom alone, an additional confrontation awaits: he stumbles upon Injun Joe, who has taken refuge in this uttermost region. The temptation to despair is very great; however, "hunger and wretchedness rise superior to fears in the long run…. [Tom] felt willing to risk Injun Joe and all other terrors." Thus he begins his long struggle out. Holding a length of a string lest he be separated from Becky, he tries one dark pathway, then another, then "a third to the fullest stretch of the kite-line, and was about to turn back when he glimpsed a far-off speck that looked like daylight; dropped the line and groped toward it, pushed his head and shoulders through a small hole and saw the broad Mississippi rolling by!" Born again upon his beloved river, Tom has earned his reward.

Afterwards, as Tom recounts his adventures to an admiring audience, he becomes a "hero" once again—now the hero of his own adventure story. Even more, he has become rich from finding buried treasure; Judge Thatcher conceives a great opinion of his future and says that he hopes "to see Tom a great lawyer or a great soldier some day." Endowed with an excess of acceptable identities which have been conferred upon him as the result of his exploits (no clearer, certainly, about the particulars of the adult male roles identified by them, but nonetheless christened, as it were, into the "rightful" inheritance of them), Tom seems to have surmounted the deficiencies of his world.

Yet it is a hollow victory after all. Just as Tom must take on faith the pronouncement of his future as a "great lawyer" or a "great soldier" (having no first-hand information about these occupations), so we must accept the validity of his "triumph." The necessary condition for Tom's final peace of mind (and for his acquisition of the fortune) is the elimination of Injun Joe. And this event occurs quite accidentally. Taking the children's peril as a warning, the villagers have shut the big door to the cave and triple-bolted it, trapping Injun Joe inside. When the full consequences of the act are discovered, it is too late; the outcast has died. "Injun Joe lay stretched upon the ground, dead, with his face close to the crack of the door…. Tom was touched, for he knew by his own experience how this wretch had suffered…. Nevertheless he felt an abounding sense of relief and security, now."

Tom's final identification with the savage, valid as it certainly is, gives the lie to the conclusion of this tale. What do they share? Something irrational and atavistic, something ineradicable in human nature. Anger, perhaps, violence, perhaps. Some unnamed, timeless element.

The poor unfortunate had starved to death. In one place near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick—a dessert-spoonful once in four-and-twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was "news." It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history and the twilight of tradition and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion…. It is many and many a year since the hapless half-breed scooped out the stone to catch the priceless drops, but to this day the tourist stares longest at that pathetic stone and that slow-dropping water when he comes to see the wonders of McDougal's Cave. Injun Joe's cup stands first in the list of the cavern's marvels; even "Aladin's Palace" cannot rival it.

Whatever Injun Joe represents in this fiction—whatever his complex relationship may be to Tom—he cannot be dealt with by summary banishment. Shut up by fiat; locked away. It is an ending with no resolution at all.

Taken seriously as a psychological recommendation, the ultimate disposition of the problem of Injun Joe offers no solution but that of denial. Lock away the small boy's anger; lock away his anti-social impulses; shut up his resentments at this totally feminine world; stifle rebellion; ignore adult male hostility: they are all too dangerous to traffic with.

Thus Tom's final "self" as we see it in this novel is a tragic capitulation: he has accommodated himself to the oddities of his environment and given over resistance. A resolution to the story is established not by changing the bizarre quality of the fictional world (not even by confronting it), but by contorting the small hero into compliance. He becomes that worst of all possible things—a "Model Boy"—the voice of conformity in a genteel society. Huck complains. "'The widder eats by a bell…. Everybody's so awful reg'lar a body can't stand it.'" And Tom responds. "'Well, everybody does that way, Huck…. If you'll try this thing just awhile longer you'll come to like it…. Huck, we can't let you into the gang if you ain't respectable you know.'"

He has even lost his sense of humor.

The fault is Twain's, of course. Tom has earned the right to "be somebody"; but his creator's vision has faltered. Twain averts his attention from the struggle that should be central and shrinks from uncivilized inclinations. In the end, his hero must settle for security in a world that will always be run by its women.

Source: Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A Nightmare Vision of American Boyhood," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 637-625.

Diana Trilling

In the following essay, Trilling analyzes Twain's portrayal of childhood and parental responsibility in Tom Sawyer.

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Source: Diana Trilling, "Tom Sawyer, Delinquent," in her Claremount Essays, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, pp. 143-225.


Frank Baldanza, "Boy Literature," in Mark Twain: An Introduction and Interpretation, edited by John Mahoney, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, pp. 103-123.

Walter Blair, "Tom Sawyer," in Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 64-82.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "Excavations," in Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 92-93.

John C. Gerber, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," in Mark Twain, edited by David J. Nordloh, Twayne, 1988, pp. 67-77.

Ronald Gottesman and Arnold Krupat, "American Literature 1865–1914," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, 4th edition, Norton, 1994, pp. 1-8.

Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition, Macmillan, 1935, pp. 43-44.

Robert Lacour-Gayet, Everyday Life in the United States before the Civil War, 1830–1860, Unger, 1969, p. 8.

Lewis Leary, Mark Twain, University of Minnesota Press, 1960, pp. 22-24.

Henry Nash Smith, "Introduction," in Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 1-12.

For Further Study

Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain's America, Chautauqua Institution, 1932.

DeVoto, who published his book following the publication of Albert Bigelow Paine's biography of Twain, called his own book "an essay in the correction of ideas." The book looks at Twain's works in the context of his American culture.

William Dean Howells, review in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 37, May, 1876.

In this glowing review written before the novel's American publication, Howells singles out Clemens' depiction of the "boy-mind" as especially wonderful.

William Dean Howells, My Mark Twain, Dover, 1997.

Howells was "the dean of American letters" during Twain's day, and also Twain's close friend and editor. In this book, Howells presents his personal account of his friendship with Twain.

Jim Hunter, "Mark Twain and the Boy-Book in 19th-Century America," College English, Vol. 24, 1963.

Hunter provides a valuable survey of contemporary boys' literature, showing the role of the "Bad Boy" that Clemens adapted for Tom Sawyer.

Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1966.

A groundbreaking biography of Twain when it was first published, Kaplan's book made use of material about Twain's life and work that had been previously unavailable to biographers.

Charles A. Norton, Writing Tom Sawyer: The Adventures of a Classic, McFarland and Co., 1983.

Norton traces the creation of the novel, suggesting that Clemens' main motivation in writing it was to present an acceptable version of his childhood to his wife's family.

Dennis Welland, The Life and Times of Mark Twain, Crescent Books, 1991.

Lavishly illustrated, this book covers Twain's life and culture, organizing its information through a geographical approach.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer